This morning's confounder? A David Brooks column that ran locally under this headline: "Once-unifying music fragmented by society and technology."
The gist? Hipsters and technology are ruining the country. And the Long Tail (Brooks doesn't capitalize it, or explain it) is bad for the culture.
There is just so much here to discuss that perhaps a fisking is in order. But for those of you with lives and/or better things to do, I'll state my conclusions first:
Brooks' true subject isn't music or economics or technology or even the "hipsters" who seem to bother him so much. What he's really writing about is the desire for a world that is simple, a world mediated by trusted gatekeepers and ruled by institutions that set the boundaries of everything from legality to morality to taste.
That Brooks could write this piece without even mentioning the monopolization of commercial radio betrays his selective myopia. But for the love of Gawd how do you write about "all-purpose" Rock and Roll as some canonized marketing wing of The One True Establishment without even a trace of irony?
Brooks is popular because he speaks to a common anxiety: The world is spinning out of control. Then he provides a reassuring answer: People like you who remember the old values have the right answer. He explains how things got this way: Hipsters and elites have caused a general breakdown of authority and good order. And he prescribes a solution: Stop it!
But here's the way it's going to be, folks: The world is going to change. Rapidly. More rapidly than you remember. More rapidly than you may be prepared for emotionally. Values and ethics and cultural connections are going to be hugely important to us, as they are now, but they must be portable. Offering them as talismans against change will fail to prevent change and succeed only in damaging the very concepts you claim to hold in such esteem.
Imagining alternatives to your accepted reality is uncomfortable, but it's an absolute requirement for staying relevant in the 21st century. Our country's established conservative voices seem intent on disqualifying themselves from credibility with the next generation, and believe it or not, that's going to become a problem soon. We're going to need conservatives who understand cultural symbols, technology and change as a force of history. But that's a topic for another day.
Fisking after the jump...
The Segmented Society
On Feb. 9, 1964, the Beatles played on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Or as Steven Van Zandt remembers the moment: “It was the beginning of my life.”
Van Zandt fell for the Beatles and discovered the blues and early rock music that inspired them. He played in a series of bands on the Jersey shore, and when a friend wanted to draw on his encyclopedic blues knowledge for a song called “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Van Zandt wound up as a guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Dan: My affinity for Springsteen is pretty much a known commodity here at Xark, and the Born to Run album was a formative influence on me, even though I was too young to appreciate it the year it was released. But anyway: Rock on, Brooks!
The 1970s were a great moment for musical integration. Artists like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drew on a range of musical influences and produced songs that might be country-influenced, soul-influenced, blues-influenced or a combination of all three. These mega-groups attracted gigantic followings and can still fill huge arenas.
Dan: Time out. Yes, the 1970s saw some musical integration. But now you're going off the rails, David, and you're only in your third graph. You want to talk about musical integration, back up to the 1940s and 1950s, when the really revolutionary integration was occurring. Musicians, then as now, are also great listeners and collectors, absorbing and integrating and innovating, and the development of styles like bluegrass, bee-bop, R&B and rock-and-roll in the post-war era was nothing short of astounding.
Thing was, all this musical integration TOTALLY PISSED OFF THE GUARDIANS OF AMERICA'S CULTURAL CANON, in part because it drew from underclass groups (Southern white trash) and minorities (blacks) that the Eisenhower Era was actively trying to marginalize.
Brooks claims to be talking about musical integration, but he's pulled a rhetorical trick: What he's really talking about is the MAINSTREAMING , COMMERCIALIZATION and CULTURAL ACCEPTANCE of niche and radical musical forms from previous decades. That's hugely significant to the argument Brooks is trying to make, and actually argues AGAINST his point.
But cultural history has pivot moments, and at some point toward the end of the 1970s or the early 1980s, the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.
Dan: I actually don't have a problem with the notion that there's a cycle to cultural creation. I've tried to get my head around that idea in previous posts, and I don't dispute that there is more "fragmentation" in modern American culture than there was in 1975 (only I call it "diversity" and "freedom"). That said, everything -- yes, EVERYTHING -- Brooks draws from this observation is essentially misleading, short-sighted and wrong.
Was there only one genre of popular music ("this thing called rock") in the late 1970s? Of course not. Even on radio there were multiple genres, and which genre you chose established your identity. Acid rock, jam rock, pop, Motown, urban rock, Southern Rock, funk, folk-rock, hard rock, yada yada yada.
What wasn't part of that popular music playlist in 1975-76? Blues. Jazz. Punk. Roots. Mountain music. The very sources of musical tradition that Brooks celebrates here were excluded from the airwaves back then.
This force he's describing wasn't some national consensus about music that flourished and died: It was commercial control of bandwidth scarcity. Radio was expensive and corrupt. The "rock press" had been coopted. You couldn't put out your own music. You couldn't listen to recorded music without physical objects and distribution deals.
The one thing that changed? The development of FM stereo and "album-oriented rock," which was actually a push-back against Top 40 control of playlists. But that was a fragmentary move, not a unifying one, and it was driven by "hipster" listeners who wanted more tracks from Led Zeppelin and less crap like "Seasons in the Sun." FM flourished and AM became a cultural ghetto, giving us a nice little example of what happens when technology gives people more choices instead of dictating their tastes.
People have been writing about the fragmentation of American music for decades. Back in the Feb. 18, 1982, issue of Time, Jay Cocks wrote that American music was in splinters. But year after year, the segmentation builds.
Dan: And that's a bad thing? Hmm. Let's take a quick look at 1982. Here's what made No. 1 on the pop music charts in the U.S. that year.
"Physical" - Olivia Newton-John (6 weeks in 1981 + 4 weeks in 1982) best selling single of the year
"I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)" - Daryl Hall & John Oates (1)
"Centerfold" - J. Geils Band (6)
"I Love Rock 'N Roll" - Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (7)
"Titles" - Vangelis (1)
"Ebony And Ivory" - Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder (7)
"Don't You Want Me" - Human League (3)
"Eye Of The Tiger" - Survivor (6)
"Abracadabra" - Steve Miller Band (2)
"Hard To Say I'm Sorry" - Chicago (2)
"Jack And Diane" - John Cougar (4)
"Who Can It Be Now?" - Men at Work (1)
"Up Where We Belong" - Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes (3)
"Truly" - Lionel Richie (2)
"Mickey" - Toni Basil (1)
"Maneater" - Daryl Hall & John Oates (2 weeks in 1982 + 2 weeks in 1983)
What have we got there? Two, maybe three songs that could be called "rock"... and after that, to put it bluntly, a bunch of shit. Who could forget Steve Miller's great lyric: "Abra-abra-cadabra: I wanna reach out and grab ya." But I'm being sarcastic: Only "I Love Rock N' Roll," "Mickey" and "Jack and Diane" can be classified as even remotely interesting.
So doesn't this make Brooks' point? Well, absolutely not. In fact, it argues against it. Disasters like "Ebony and Ivory" aren't the result of cultural fragmentation: They're the result of corporate control of "the starmaker machinery behind the popular songs." They're kitsch posing as musical integration.
If you looked at this list, you'd assume that music was in a state of sorry decline in 1982 -- when nothing could be further from the truth. Outside of the mainstream ("this thing called rock") there were new bands creating new, culture-changing, life-altering music. REM released the EP Chronic Town in 1982. The Clash put out Combat Rock. Laurie Anderson, Bad Brains, The Psychadelic Furs, Elvis Costello, The B-52s, The Cure, Richard and Linda Thompson, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, The Replacements, and X all put out important, critically acclaimed albums -- and if you were stuck in a town that didn't have an alternative radio station, you probably missed it.
Here's what "this thing called rock" looked like to mainstream consumers: Motley Crue, Sammy Hagar, Twisted Sister, Journey, Def Leopard.
One more note: An obscure Irish band fell off the charts in 1982 because its second album, 1981's October, tried to go in a non-mainstream direction.
Last month, for example, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote an essay in The New Yorker noting that indie rock is now almost completely white, lacking even the motifs of African-American popular music. Carl Wilson countered in Slate that indie rock’s real wall is social; it’s the genre for the liberal-arts-college upper-middle class.
Dan: Cue the ominous-but-somehow mocking background music. Our villain has entered the room... whilst sipping a wine cooler, apparently. Who is to blame? White liberals, the bete noire of Brooks and his fans.
Technology drives some of the fragmentation. Computers allow musicians to produce a broader range of sounds. Top 40 radio no longer serves as the gateway for the listening public. Music industry executives can use market research to divide consumers into narrower and narrower slices.
Dan: Got that? Technology is aiding and abetting this destruction of our culture.
And computers? They let people produce "a broader range of sounds." Not a word about the new economic, creative, cooperative and social opportunities that computers "allow" musicians.
No, if you're just reading Brooks, you just got the impression that the diversity of music that's available today is the result of "industry executives" using market research to divide us up. Be sure you catch this slight of hand: It's the industry that's dividing us up. As if these choices are being made FOR us. Not BY us. Again, without a mention of the Clear Channel hegemony and the standardizing of radio playlists.
But other causes flow from the temper of the times. It’s considered inappropriate or even immoral for white musicians to appropriate African-American styles. And there’s the rise of the mass educated class.
Dan: Liberals, again, with their stupid concerns. Oh, and they only think they're smart.
People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes. I’m not sure they enjoy music more than the throngs who sat around listening to Led Zeppelin, but they can certainly feel more individualistic and special.
Dan: So liking music and being interested in music and looking for authentic music that speaks to us... that's not only bad, it's predictable and haughty?
Because I really want to get this point straight, Mr. Brooks: Americanism is individualism, but Americans who actually use their individual tastes and liberty to make choices other than listening to Led Zeppelin are somehow effete poseurs who are REALLY just trying to make the rest of us feel inferior?
Let me be blunt: Brooks is being a condescending little shit here, and there's really only one proper response to a prissy little diss like this one: Fuck you, jerk.
Van Zandt grew up in one era and now thrives in the other, but how long can mega-groups like the E Street Band still tour?
“This could be the last time,” he says.
Dan: Sure it could. And I love the E Street Band. But what would be the problem with that? Don't you ever look at The Rolling Stones and think, "Oh, will you just SHUT UP?" For crying out loud, you're just making money at this point. And why should E Street follow that exploitive path?
He argues that if the Rolling Stones came along now, they wouldn’t be able to get mass airtime because there is no broadcast vehicle for all-purpose rock. And he says that most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.
Dan: OK, here I guess I'm arguing with Van Zandt, not Brooks, but that's one helluva argument. No broadcast vehicle for "all-purpose rock?" What does that even MEAN? And how can you say that in an era like this one, when ANYBODY can put up a track and build an audience?
Oh, but the issue is "mass airtime." I see. The Rolling Stones, if they came along today, wouldn't be elevated to superstardom instantly by some benevolent record label radio station fairy. I see.
So it's not only a highly questionable argument in the first place. It's also pleading for special treatment, rather than arguing for meritocracy and hard work. How very American of you, Mr. Brooks.
As a result, much of their music (and here I’m bowdlerizing his language) stinks.
Dan: Whereas your writing and thinking (and here I'm bowdlerizing my own reaction) sucks donkeys, Mr. Brooks. Or words to that effect.
He describes a musical culture that has lost touch with its common roots. And as he speaks, I hear the echoes of thousands of other interviews concerning dozens of other spheres.
Dan: Ahhh. It took him a dozen paragraphs, but Brooks has finally gotten around to his master narrative.
It seems that whatever story I cover, people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. This is the driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates, behind worries of polarization and behind the entire Obama candidacy.
Dan: If you say so, David. But please, go on...
If you go to marketing conferences, you realize we really are in the era of the long tail. In any given industry, companies are dividing the marketplace into narrower and more segmented lifestyle niches.
Dan: Let's try restating that idea, except this time we'll do it accurately. Thanks to capitalism and consumerism and teh Interwebs, people have more choices, which means that it's harder for companies to sell them one-size-fits-all crap. It means you have competition, Mr. Brooks. It means that some people may choose to like me better than you. It means that I can speak up and argue back against your insipid junk-journalism.
Companies aren't dividing us up. They're struggling to keep up with people acting freely. And that drives traditional media crazy.
Van Zandt has a way to counter all this, at least where music is concerned. He’s drawn up a high school music curriculum that tells American history through music. It would introduce students to Muddy Waters, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. He’s trying to use music to motivate and engage students, but most of all, he is trying to establish a canon, a common tradition that reminds students that they are inheritors of a long conversation.
Dan: GREAT! That could be really cool! Only there's already a curriculum like that. It's called Guitar Hero II. But hey, we could have both. And other things, too: Internet radio, Pandora, The Music Genome Project...
But time out, again. Van Zandt may be talking about communicating a rich musical heritage to students, but I suspect Brooks is interested in something else. That word "canon." Something about that word...
And Van Zandt is doing something that is going to be increasingly necessary for foundations and civic groups. We live in an age in which the technological and commercial momentum drives fragmentation. It’s going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.
Dan: In other words, a lingua franca. A common cultural experience. Something that unites us. That sounds pretty good when you put it that way.
Mass media used to be that thing. It used to elevate the Brookses of the world above the scruffy people we now call bloggers, used to give them gatekeeper status. This was newsworthy. This wasn't. This artist doesn't merit attention. This musician is the future of Rock and Roll.
They had AUTHORITY. And by Gawd, they want it BACK.
Did it arbitrarily exclude some good stuff in favor of some schlock? Sure. But at least it was commonly held schlock, feel-good kitsch, and you could sell it. And at least we were all speaking the same language.
Show of hands: Who wants to go back to that?
Music used to do this. Not so much anymore.
Dan: No, and here's what's going to happen. Music is going to do something better. Technology and music and our creative impulses are going to combine, once we get our copyright issues ironed out, and we're going to have an explosion of cultural creativity like the world has never seen. And it's going to be far more democratic, and do-it-yourself, and truly humanistic than anything the recording industry ever gave us.
Will it last? History says no. History says the money will eventually catch up to it, and concentrate it, and package it, and create scarcity, and then we'll go back to where we are now. Until the next new thing comes along, and kicks some future Mr. Brooks in the teeth.
Look, I don't see Utopia in modern music and technology and emerging media. Not at all. I just see something with the potential to be better than the terrible place where we stand right now. And that's good enough for me to start.
If you feel the same way, join me. We'll be hated and scorned, but someday some future corrupt Establishment may speak of us nostalgically.